We share our planet with an ancient family, one that has witnessed the rise and fall of the dinosaurs and the birth and ascent of humanity. For more than 150 million years the Leatherback sea turtle has lived in the deep ocean waters, visiting the shore only to breed.
The oldest of all the sea turtles, leatherbacks are a threatened species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), their existence imperiled by a host of man made ills, including climate change, commercial fishing, marine pollution, habitat encroachment and poaching. Once the stronghold of the species, these ancient lords have seen their population decline by 90% since 1980.
Many of the remaining leatherbacks make their nests on the Pacific beaches of Costa Rica, where efforts are being made to preserve and protect this living link to a primordial world.
May 23 is World Turtle Day
The leatherback nesting season in Costa Rica extends from September to March on the Pacific, from March to July on the Caribbean. A female can nest up to 12 times per season, depositing an average of 80 round eggs per clutch, each roughly the size of a billiard ball. Only a few turtles from each clutch will survive.
Costa Rica is an important nesting home to other sea turtle species, including greens, hawksbills and olive ridleys. Hawksbills are designated critically endangered by the IUCN.
The scientific name for the leatherback sea turtle is Dermochelys coriacea. In Greek dermo refers to skin, chelys to turtle. Coriacea is derived from the Latin corium, meaning leather.
Leatherbacks are the largest as well as the oldest sea turtle. Adults range in size from 4-6 ft and weigh between 500-2000 lbs.
They can consume twice their body weight in one day, feeding on jellyfish and other soft-bodied invertebrates.
Unlike other sea turtles, leatherbacks do not have a hard shell or carapace. Their leathery skin covers a flexible matrix of bones, allowing them to dive deeper than other species, as deep as 4,000 feet.
Leatherbacks are the only sea turtles that do not return to breed at the place of their birth, though most return to the same region.
The largest leatherback on record washed up on a beach in Wales in 1988. Measuring 9 ft long, weighing more than 2,000 lbs, it was estimated to be 100 years old. It had drowned after being entangled in commercial fishing gear.